Awake to the World: Talking with Tyler Barton
Tyler Barton’s short story collection Eternal Night at the Nature Museum, just released from Sarabande Books, crackles with unbridled energy as characters seek home in unlikely places: a demolition derby, a stranger’s idling truck, an abandoned museum. A treasure trove of formal variety, these stories feature an electrifying array of characters trying to find a foothold in the world or transcend it altogether.
Barton is a literary advocate and cofounder of Fear No Lit, home of the Submerging Writer Fellowship. His fiction has appeared in The Iowa Review, Gulf Coast, Subtropics, and elsewhere. He’s earned honors from The Kenyon Review, The Chicago Review of Books, Phoebe Journal, Best of the Net, Best Microfiction 2020, and Best Small Fictions 2020. His collection of flash fiction, The Quiet Part Loud, was published by Split Lip Press in 2019. He lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Find him at tsbarton.com or @goftyler.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Tyler over Zoom. We discussed maintaining a sense of wonder, chasing energy on the page, writing by intuition, and finding the new collection’s central theme.
The Rumpus: One of my favorite aspects of this collection is its wide variety of settings. What do you see as the role of place in your writing?
Tyler Barton: It differs from story to story, but I very rarely start with place. Even in cases where a place has inspired me, I still start with voice. For example, the story “Black Sands” is set in Portage, Indiana. While I was in grad school in Minnesota, whenever we drove home to Pennsylvania, we would stop at the mid-way point of Portage. We stayed there a couple times, and I found myself taking so many notes about the town. The notes came to me via a snide, precocious young teenager’s voice. Often, I start with a sentence or just the voice of a character talking. Writing comes to me through the texture of the way somebody speaks and the way their thoughts move. A lot of times, I’ll have a narrator talking for a while in a draft before I really know where they’re from. I probably wouldn’t suggest this to writing students, because then sometimes you have to step back and find your setting.
But I will say that a lot of the stories in this collection, especially ones set in Pennsylvania, are about home in different ways. I wasn’t able to write about home until I had moved away to Minnesota. Then, all my stories became about South Central Pennsylvania. Then, when I was getting ready to leave Minnesota, I started setting stories in Minnesota. During those writing sessions, I would feel that because I was about to leave that place, I wanted to get it down on paper. The last story in the collection, “Spiritual Introduction to the Neighborhood,” is set in in Mankato, Minnesota, and I wrote that within the last few months of living there.
After recently moving to Saranac Lake, New York, I’ve discovered that I learn the most about a place in the first thirty and the last thirty days of living there. I get there, and I find myself taking so many notes and trying to decide if things are different here or if everything just feels different because it’s new. Then it becomes normal, and I live there for a couple years. Later, when I’m moving away, those last few weeks are so charged with wonder and mystery: “I never learned this before” or “I can’t believe I never went here.” I wish I could always stay in that state of wonder, but I’ve been in Saranac Lake for two months now, and I can already feel it starting to seem normal. I’m not turning my head at every house and tree to notice details, or watching documentaries about the town anymore. The setting is, sadly, receding into the background.
Rumpus: Have you found any ways in your daily life to snap yourself out of normalcy and force yourself to notice things?
Barton: Honestly, that’s the project of my life. I want to be a more mindful person who slows down, who notices the trees that he passes and has time for the conversations that crop up while walking downtown. I want to be present in the moment. What helps is reading, especially poetry. I’ve found that if I read poems in the morning, that day will feel a bit more charged. I’ll be on the lookout for details to reveal themselves. I know I’m sounding a little mystical, but my ideal way of being is to not think so much about time. I prefer not to think about what’s next, what’s coming up later, and what I’ll have for dinner, but instead notice what’s around me at the moment. Writing brings me there. That’s why when I do find myself noticing things, I tend to try to write them down.
Then there’s this weird dichotomy in that the purest form of the moment is before you even notice you’re in it. As soon as you think, Oh, that is beautiful, you’re out of the now, in a sense. These ideas of being in the moment and getting rid of ego come into my writing a lot. That’s what being awake to the world is all about. I’m always trying to be there, but most often I’m not.
Rumpus: There are a lot of interesting dichotomies within your work. A lot of characters are seeking transcendence, and frequently, they’re doing that in unlikely places, including at work. You’ve mentioned working on a project about the absurdity of modern jobs. What inspires you about the workplace?
Barton: At work is where I most struggle with being mindful. I’ve had a number of jobs that I’m very grateful to have worked, including in museums and at a high school. Now I work for a literary organization. Even when I’m in what I think of as a “dream job,” I inhabit one of two modes at work. Either it’s so stressful and fast-moving that I can’t get a hold of anything, and everything is future-minded, or it’s a job where I’m not engaged enough. Then I become mired in dread, boredom, and doubt about my past decisions. Yet when I’m working a stressful job, I miss my days at the children’s museum, when I could just walk outside and look at the pigs, and the sky, and the big huge pit of corn kernels that we had in autumn in Minnesota. Those moments are so peaceful and mindful, but when I was there, I was also often bored out of my mind. The grass is always greener.
I think I will always have a job. I don’t have a romantic idea of writing sustaining me, so I think a lot about how we spend our time at work and what could happen there. I admit I have a real restlessness about work. I’m either bored or super stressed. There is no middle ground, and I feel these sensations very deeply. They come up in my writing, including in the project you brought up. It’s a very lightly connected book of microfiction. Every microfiction is a different person working a different job. That’s a much more absurd work than Eternal Night at the Nature Museum, where things may seem ridiculous, but they could still happen.
I like the term “ridiculous realism.” I don’t know who coined it, but I get this sense from John Jodzio and from Lindsay Hunter, who informed me a lot with her voice. I aim to write things that could happen but probably wouldn’t because they’re so ridiculous. But that microfiction project [To Work] involves very weird stuff happening at people’s jobs. I always thought I wouldn’t write absurd, speculative, or fantastical works, but when I opened myself to the possibility, it was very freeing. I was working in a job that I did not love at the time. It informed a lot of the stories.
Rumpus: The first line of the opening story, “Once Nothing, Twice Shatter,” is “Luther buys cars.” From that innocuous statement, the story moves to completely unexpected places. How do your story structures grow in the drafting process? Do you often start with a realistic statement and then go from there, or do you start with the ridiculous?
Barton: Usually, it’s the first. A piece of language or a small detail will inspire me, and I start there. There was a billboard in Minnesota that said, “Luther buys cars,” and had a phone number on it. I was writing in the backseat of a car on the way home from a reading in Minneapolis. At live readings, I always have a notebook with me because my mind gets very fired up. I start noticing everything, so I take notes about things I see as a way of processing this excited energy. So I was in that state and saw the billboard, and I immediately wrote the first page of what would be “Once Nothing, Twice Shatter” all in one go.
My writing process is incredibly messy. It all relies on whether I have the energy that’s inherent to the writing itself. If I can write an energetic first page, I can often come back to it the next day, then the next day, and continue that energy until it dissipates. Every short story writer who has twenty stories published may also have a hundred that are unfinished, but I might have three hundred that are unfinished. There are openings that are some of the best writing I’ve ever done, which no one will ever see because I can’t reconnect to the energy I had when I wrote that opening. I don’t often write with a plot in mind, so the writing is often odd, surprising, and takes unexpected turns. Of course, I revise like crazy and try to make things as clear as I can, but often, stories are a real mess for a long time, and sometimes that mess never gets cleaned up, and it just goes in this folder on my desktop called, “Abandoned.” However, I do think those failed stories accrue to get me to the next successful story.
Rumpus: I saw that you went to a Mary Ruefle exhibition recently, and she does such exciting things with found poetry, erasures, and collage. She’s taking what’s in front of her, applying energy, and creating something unexpected. What do you learn from people who also have energetic writing that relies on associative logic, rather than straightforward plots?
Barton: This book shows that I lean into associative logic and let the writing itself inform the writing as it moves forward, rather than saying, “This story is about X, so I’m going to make sure this turn happens.” Movement is always endemic to what’s on the page, and I try to stay there as much as possible. I get that from reading Mary Ruefle. Her poems seem so unplanned. I remember when I first started reading her, I would read one poem that was so good, I wanted to read it aloud to a bunch of people and share it everywhere. Then I would read two poems in a row where I didn’t connect with a single line on the page. Now, so often I revisit the poems I haven’t dog-eared, and I think, Oh, my God, I never saw this before. Now I’m getting it. There are so many sides to her. The more I read her, the more I get to know her because five years later, I now get something powerful from this once head-scratching poem.
Lots of writers are like that, but I think intuition is more prevalent in the way that she writes. I don’t want that word to come off as gendered, as it sometimes does. I think intuition is incredibly important, and it guides my writing. With my favorite writers, like Chris Bachelder, Lydia Davis, Amy Hempel, and Lorrie Moore, their writing feels like they’re discovering it as you discover it. I love that.
Going back to Mary Ruefle’s exhibition, it was her first-ever solo show. She installed poems around a single, small room at the Robert Frost Stone House in Bennington, Vermont. She used every available space and surface in the room. There’s a Robert Frost poem painted on the wall, and she did an erasure of that poem. If they want to restore it, they’ll have to repaint this poem because she erased it, and her erasure brought me to tears. Yet her collages are so funny. She leads with humor so often, and that’s often where I’m coming from, too. I find it really hard to be interested in my own writing if it isn’t humorous. It doesn’t have to be laugh-out-loud or setup-punchline funny, but there has to be humor at the core of the work, even if it’s a sad story.
Rumpus: There’s great variety in these stories, in terms of form and length but also tonally, like a story moving from humor into horrible tragedy. What was the process of putting the collection together?
Barton: Basically, the uninteresting part is that an early version of this book was my MFA thesis. I’m glad that I was forced to turn in a thesis, and I like that it was called a “thesis” and not a “manuscript.” However, while I was working on the book, of course I was calling it “my book” or “my manuscript,” because as soon as I graduated, I was going to send it places and it was going to get published. I was a little delusional! But I’m glad the program required us to take the work that we had done over those few years and put it together and try to make a thing out of it. But to be honest, at the time I was simply taking the fifteen or so stories that I liked the most, that showed some of the best parts of my writing, many of which had been published. So, in my mind, they were on the top of the pile. I put these stories together and gave it a title that I liked, and it was fine. But that wasn’t really a book. That was in 2018.
I then spent a lot of time in the two years before the book got picked up revising and rewriting stories and trying to dig in and find something in the pile of stories that held them all together. There are twenty stories in this book, but I’ve got probably around forty stories that I’m really proud of and would like for people to read. So I had to cut out a lot.
It actually all came together when I discovered what turned out to be the epigraph of the book. I was at a writing residency in the Adirondacks, and I had brought Mary Robison’s story collection Tell Me. There’s a really short story in the middle called “In Jewel,” and there was a line that I had underlined when I first read the book a few years before, but this time, it really jumped out at me: “I like feeling at home, but I wish I didn’t feel it here,” It made me realize my book was about home. I thought that the book was about a lot of these more highfalutin’ ideas, some of the things we were talking about before, like trying to transcend ego and letting go or becoming more mindful or a critique of capitalism. In the MFA program, you have to write an essay with your thesis that says what it’s all about. I wrote a lot of English-major BS, and while I do think those higher-level themes are there, they’re not anything that a reader is going to pick up right away, and they certainly wouldn’t make a great pitch.
I finally discovered these stories are all about somebody who lost their house or somebody who is leaving their home or somebody who has become incredibly restless where they live and might leave. There’s this liminal space of either going somewhere new or leaving somewhere, and that quote from Mary Robison made so much sense to me. It helped me to realize that, even though I had this pile of stories that I really liked, I needed to decide which ones were about finding, losing, or transcending home. That’s how I came to the shape of the book.
Photograph of Tyler Barton by Lina Seijo.